Clean energy vital in a world of worsening drought and floods

New York, 5 June 2016 - As the world marks World Environment Day, eNCA takes a closer look at how investing in renewable energy can help reduce carbon emissions and reduce harm caused by global warming. Video: eNCA

NEW YORK - Imagine a world that's run out of fresh water. A world where it's so hot, crops can no longer grow. Where rising sea levels and flooding destroy our homes.

This could be our future if global temperatures continue to rise at the current rapid rate.

According to Nasa, 2015 was the hottest year on record, with rising temperatures intensifying weather events.

"It’s true that it’s an El Niño effect and we know that's a cyclical weather phenomenon that happens naturally, but what climate change does is it really amplifies the effects of climate variation and it just makes those impacts that much worse. So we're going to see more drought," says Greenpeace Africa’s Penny-Jane Cooke.

Johannesburg’s main source of drinking water, the Vaal Dam has experienced a more than 30 percent drop in the water level in the last 12 months. The dam's shallow depth has resulted in an increased rate of evaporation.

The current drought has been described as the worst in South Africa in 30 years. On the other side of the globe, on the west coast of the US, California is heading towards the end of five years of drought.

In the last five years parts of Lake Hodges In southern California have dried up completely.

PHOTO: Trees are now growing where there used to be water flowing all the way under the bridge in the distance. Credit: eNCA/Bianca Ackroyd

One resident says the lake has become a drought meter for locals.

"The water levels are lower than I've ever seen. It’s just kind of a bummer to drive across the bridge and not see the lake. I'd like to see it back to normal again; it's just if we get more rain," says Roger Peterson.

Marine life at risk

Scientists at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution for Oceanography are investigating the impact that warmer temperatures have on the ocean.

Danny Beckwith, education specialist at the Birch Aquarium, which is associated with Scripps, says that the warmer temperatures are having an impact on kelp forests in the Pacific Ocean.

“We have kelp beds right off our coast here and those kelp beds need very specific temperatures to survive,” he says.

The cold water allows for the biodiversity in the kelp forest to flourish.

“[If] that temperature changes a little bit you’re going to see some big changes. The kelp might start dying and the animals that live there will have no place to live,” he said.

The rising temperatures are linked with an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which is generated by fossil fuels, mining, construction and transportation.

eNCA climatologist Candice McKechnie says ocean-atmosphere interaction is very complex and excess CO2 and heat from the atmosphere affects many aspects of the ocean.

“The oceans not only absorb the heat but transport it across the world, affecting sea surface temperatures, currents and large scale ocean circulation,” she says.

“Higher CO2 levels in the ocean can affect the ph, which can result in ocean acidification. The carbon cycle is also affected by uptake and release of CO2 by marine plants and animals,” says McKechnie.

Looking into the future

In Maryland, on the east coast of the US, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre is running a series of long-term experiments.

A wide-open marsh is dotted with white and transparent chambers, yellow cables and a boardwalk to navigate around them.

It looks a bit like a scene out of a science fiction film, but in fact researchers are trying to see what wetlands will look like in the future with exposure to more carbon dioxide and warmer environments.

Wetlands play an important role as they catch rainwater from flooding and protect the homes of people living in low coastal areas.

"I’ve been measuring CO2 since 1985 and it’s grown almost 25 percent just in my career, so the rate of change is alarming. Most people are worried about it because it’s those the carbon dioxide absorbs the infrared radiation and leads to global warming,” says Gary Peresta, environmental engineer at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre.

White chambers surround the experiments and help contain CO2 around the plants. They remain open at the top to allow for rainfall.

The study also includes a new experiment to measure the direct effects of warming using infrared lamps and warming circuits.

A recent study published in the science journal Nature reveals that higher levels of CO2 are actually helping plants to grow faster due to increased photosynthesis.

Watch the video below created by Nasa about the findings of the study:

However, experts say that this won't necessarily guarantee the survival of the wetlands.

"According to the latest data ... it looks like sea levels may rise at such a rate that many wetland ecosystems like this may end up under water in a hundred years," says Peresta.

Adapting to the rise in sea levels and flooding

Adjusting to a world where people living in low coastal areas may lose their homes due to the rise in sea levels and flooding is a major priority for New York State.

In 2012 Super Storm Sandy caused major damage and destruction to 13 different states.

“Hundreds of thousands of people were without power for many days. It created tremendous flooding and destroyed thousands of homes,” says Richard Kauffman, chairman of energy and finance for New York State.

This cost billions to repair and was the second costliest storm in US history.

If you look at the flood maps of Manhattan, sea level rise is not an idle threat,” says Kauffman.

The storm was a turning point in making the city of New York, which is home to more than 8 million people, more resilient to climate change.

Flooding during the storm destroyed houses on Kissam Avenue on Staten Island.

“I think the link was made pretty quickly that it was an extreme weather event. We had not seen anything like that before,” says Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, an initiative helping communities be more resilient to climate change through urban design.

“When Hurricane Katrina happened we were extremely shocked and devastated but we thought it was a one-time occurrence. When Sandy happened again we started realising this is the new reality,” she says.

PHOTO: Repairs are still being done to the Battery Park tunnel in Manhattan, New York four years after Super Storm Sandy flooded parts of the South Ferry subway in 2012. Credit eNCA/Bianca Ackroyd

COP21 - The turning point for international climate negotiations

The climate agreement signed by world leaders in Paris in December 2015 has been hailed as a victory in the fight to reduce global warming, the cause of more intense flooding, droughts and wildfires across the globe.

However, a lot more work needs to be done before the agreement becomes legally binding.

The Department of Environmental Affairs says the impact of climate change in South Africa will be extreme if nothing was done.

"It's going to be a disaster. Where we are able to farm now we will not be able to do so, as [in] South Africa, that land is going to diminish and [along with it] productivity," says Maesela Kekana, chief director for international climate change relations and negotiations in the Department of Environmental Affairs.

In April, a record 177 parties (countries) signed the climate agreement, but it will become legally binding only when at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of emissions commit to the agreement.

PHOTO: This Paris Agreement Tracker map shows that even if the whole of Africa joins the Paris agreement it will represent only 7.21 percent of total emissions. Credit: World Resources Institute

“Without the US we will be in trouble. The US plus China, just those two countries count for 37 percent of total global emissions. We can’t afford to have either of those two countries not joining this agreement. It is important that the US take action and lead on this one,” says Kekana.

Dr Jonathan Pershing, Special Envoy for climate change in the US, told that the US government plans to do this soon.

"We're currently working on putting our papers in order. We have committed to do so by the end of this year, so we intend to do it in 2016," said Pershing.

This is good news for South Africa.

"This will not only give us confidence that the agreement will hold but it will reassure everyone that the implementation of the Paris agreement will be done," said Kekana.

The COP21 climate agreement aims  to limit the increase in global temperature to two degrees.

South Africa has committed to a 42 percent reduction in emissions from the business as usual approach by 2025.

The government said it would reach its peak for emissions by 2025.

“It’s unimaginable that we will not fulfil our commitments, because there’s a tipping point. If we go above the two-degree mark then the consequences are severe, particularly for those who contributed less, because those are the ones with the least capabilities to deal with climate change,” says Kekana.

He says it will take no longer than three years for the COP21 agreement to be passed through the National Assembly.

Subsequently, a number of steps will need to be taken to implement the commitments made.

Pershing said the US would be watching South Africa’s progress with implementation of the climate commitments.

"I think you [South Africa] can send a signal to the rest of the world that you needn’t be a US, you can be a South Africa and really be leaders and move things forward. What we’re hoping for is that the next steps are robust, that the things that you’ve talked about doing you can implement" said Pershing.

A new alternative

The state of New York said that in the process of becoming more climate resilient an opportunity exists to change energy sources and reduce pollution levels.

“What we’ve seen across the state are individuals and communities that want to have more control over their energy.

VIDEO: People walk on the streets of Manhattan at lunch time. More than 8 million people live in New York.

“Quality of life is incredibly important to all of us, and it can be measured in many different ways. With respect to energy, one way of measuring it is a reduction in pollution,” Kaufmann says.

He says switching to more renewable energy sources will help the state transition from a system that it is energy and financially inefficient to a system that will also improve economic growth without challenging the environment.

South Africa is targeting investment in renewable energy to help meet its climate commitments as well as to drive economic growth in the country.

"We remain convinced that in order to see the economic regeneration of Africa, energy, and particularly clean energy is going to underpin all the efforts that we are involved in," said Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on Africa Day in Parliament.

The country’s renewable energy independent power producer procurement programme has already attracted R19.2-billion in investment and cut around four million tons of carbon dioxide.

But South Africa is still heavily reliant on coal-fired power, a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Department of Energy, about 77 percent of the country’s energy needs is supplied by coal.

The department’s website states: “This is unlikely to change significantly in the next two decades owing to the relative lack of suitable alternatives to coal as an energy source.”

It further notes that “many of the deposits can be exploited at extremely favourable costs and, as a result, a large coal-mining industry has developed”.

PHOTO: Eskom's Matimba power station in Lephalale, Limpopo province. It is one of the largest direct dry-cooled coal power stations in the world. Credit: eNCA/Bianca Ackroyd

The government's submission to the COP agreement states that despite the need to adapt to climate change, job creation comes first.

"Therefore, in the short-term (up to 2025), South Africa faces significant rigidity in its economy and any policy-driven transition to a low carbon and climate resilient society must take into account and emphasise its overriding priority to address poverty and inequality," notes the document.

However officials in the US are among those who say that countries like South Africa, don't need to choose between industrialisation and sustainability.

Investing in renewable energy can create the jobs South Africa needs. 

"Sometimes these issues are set up in opposition, that you're either in favor of economic growth or you're in favor of conserving the environment,” says Kauffman.

“By pursuing policies that support clean energy we're actually going to create wide economic growth."

PHOTO: The Manhattan skyline seen from the Staten Island Ferry. Credit: eNCA/Bianca Ackroyd

Experts in the US, which is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, say the damage has already been done in their country and South Africa could learn from their mistakes.

"We started our electricity system as being very coal heavy, we made a decision that we wanted our infrastructure to extend to every community in the United States,” says Dan Whitten, vice-president of communications at the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“That was a good thing but we ended up doing that through building a lot of infrastructure, burning a lot of coal and you (South Africa) can start from a cleaner place in some respects," said Whitten.

While South Africa plans to target of a 42-percent reduction in emissions by 2025,  the government continues to build new, coal-fired power stations like Eskom's Medupi and Kusile plants as well as a number of new independent coal plants.

It's not clear how plans to roll out new coal power plants will affect the commitment to reduce emissions.

However, in a world that’s facing increasingly severe weather events  -- like Super Storm Sandy -- adapting to an environment with rising temperatures is vital to protecting our homes and resources for generations to come.



Camera operator - Thando Hlophe
Illustrations - Anastasya Eliseeva

*Please note this was a sponsored trip. eNCA journalists were guests of the US Embassy in South Africa.


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